Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Monday 6 January 2014

Farewell Elizabeth Jane Howard

I was born in Kensington. My father was a composer. My mother came from a rich home, and was, I believe, incurably romantic. She married my father, despite the half-hearted protestations of her family, who felt that to marry a musician was very nearly as bad as to marry into trade, and much less secure.

My old copy of The Beautiful Visit (1950), Howard's first novel
So begins chapter one of The Beautiful Visit, Elizabeth Jane Howard's first novel, and the first example of her writing I had encountered; many years ago. It soon became one of my favourite novels. Enchanting, sensitive and beautifully written, it tells of a magical experience in a young girl's life, the mood of which can never be regained. Despite the delicate, elegant prose, it is also powerful, quite an achievement for a writer so young (she was in her twenties at the time). The book is dedicated 'To Robert Aickman', and it was some time before I noticed this, linking it to the author of Ringing the Changes and The Hospice I had enjoyed many more years previously. Intrigued, I bought a copy of her excellent autobiography Slipstream, and I began to discover what a strange relationship the two had. As my interest in Aickman deepened, it became clear how much she may have affected his writing.

Slipstream, her excellent autobiography
The Beautiful Visit displays a sense of mystery, a lightness of touch – even, yes, of strangeness – which could in fact have influenced Aickman. They first met when she approached him with the complete manuscript of The Beautiful Visit as he was at the time a literary agent, and an experienced writer, though only in journals and of reviews. He advised her and helped her revise her work, and was influential in getting it published. It was an immediate success, winning the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize and selling well.

The Tartarus edition of Three Miles Up, Howard's own collection of strange stories
It was only after this that Aickman began writing his own fiction. I've heard suggested that he was rather jealous of Howard's admiration of L.T.C. Rolt's supernatural stories, therefore setting out to outdo his fellow Inland Waterways founder by penning his own. (If this is true, in the long term he was certainly successful; however, Sleep No More, Rolt's collection of short stories, is well worth reading in its own right.) His problems began when he struggled to get his own stories published. It was perhaps a blow to his ego when he could only achieve this by a joint venture with Howard, insisted upon by the publisher to ensure sales; which became We Are For the Dark. Certainly Three Miles Up, one of Howard's three stories in the collection, could be said to be Aickmanesque; however, it was written before such a term could be applied. It's certainly one of the most finely-wrought and enigmatic of short stories. Howard of course went on to achieve the kind of critical and commercial success Aickman could only dream of, and indeed he went searching for something similar by dallying with the American market later in life. He barely succeeded (his works were rarely reprinted, and his stature has grown, in the main, since his death). Howard was to spurn him; yet Aickman's fondness for her continued throughout his life. He even asked to see her on his death bed, a request which it is said she declined.

I had a dream some years ago that I bumped into the ageing but still beautiful Elizabeth Jane Howard at a party, and she shared with me and me alone some confidential snippets about her tempestuous relationship with Robert Aickman so many years before. Until a few days ago, I was hopeful this unlikely event may somehow occur.

Farewell Elizabeth Jane Howard. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Martin, what a wonderfully poignant and exquisitely written tribute. Through your finely chosen words, I was drawn into the enigmatic beauty — almost ethereal, some might say — of this woman and the spell she cast over Aickman and Rolt, not to mention yourself! I must now seek out a copy of her autobiography, and The Beautiful Visit. Thank you for sharing such a fine commemorative piece. Regards, Paul

  3. Beautiful piece you have wrote,Martin.

  4. Thanks for your comments. I enjoyed writing it, though on such a sad occasion.